At Williams College: Music by Jonathan Biss and Miriam Fried bred in the bone


WILLIAMSTOWN -- Schumann's music, pianist Jonathan Biss has written "is about me, and for me. When I play his music, I understand everything about him."

You can double that, or even sextuple it, after the recital Biss and his mother, violinist Miriam Fried, played Wednesday night at Williams College.

The program made a coda to two projects Biss had been engaged on in the past year. "Schumann: Under the Influence" consisted of an international series of 30 concerts probing Schumann's music. "Exploring Beethoven's Piano Sonatas" was a free online course sponsored by the Curtis Institute of Music and watched by 30,000.

Enter Miriam Fried, who along with her husband, violist/violinist Paul Biss, gave the young pianist a home surrounded by music. A concert soloist and chamber player (lately of the Mendelssohn String Quartet) in her own right, she rejoined the young adult as a frequent concert partner.

The generously proportioned Williams program opened with two puzzlers, the violin-piano sonatas by Janacek and Schumann, and closed with the fresh air of two by Beethoven.

Music was, literally, bred in the bone in this concert duo. Not only were they in suave technical command; they seemed of one mind about which way the music should go - and that seemed an inevitable, open-heartedly expressive route.

Fried drew a lustrous yet clear tone from her 1718 Stradivarius, and Biss took advantage of the powers of Williams' huge Boesendorfer grand with the lid open. Yet, apart from a few overbearing moments in the piano, the balance, in Chapin Hall, allowed the players to give full voice and vent to the music.

Despite passionate outcries, the Janacek sonata is, at heart, an anguished, grieving work. Mostly written during World War I, it questions and quests in the Moravian composer's idiosyncratic, sometimes folk-driven fashion. Bartok is not far away.

The Schumann sonata is a late work, resembling in some ways his better-known piano quartets, but looser and sprawling in form, and dipping more into fantasy. "Over and over again, in piece after piece," Biss writes, "he [Schumann] reaches deep within himself for that which is most obscured, and makes it feel like everyone's obscurity."

What's that obsessive quality? The almost manic swings between euphoria and depression?

Hard to say, but never mind. Fried and Biss dug deep into the musical issues, making them personal. The duo indulged in Janacek's occasional savagery and Schumann's seething romanticism without underlining them.

The two Beethoven sonatas at the end, Opus 23 and Opus 96, flowed with the juices of life. A special moment: the violin's spiraling, cadenza-like solo in the adagio of Opus 96. It was put into relief by so much enriching give-and-take that it stood out as a sample of the excellent collaboration and healthy spirits all around.


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